Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

Gender and Sexual Diversity: A Question of Humanity?

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

Gender and Sexual Diversity: A Question of Humanity?

Article excerpt

Twenty-one years ago I was sitting in the African NGO Caucus at the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, waiting my turn to speak. The NGO representatives at the conference had organised themselves into caucuses to pursue issues of common concern. One of the caucuses I joined was the Lesbian Caucus. Our goal was to fight to retain the four references to 'sexual orientation' as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the draft Program for Action, that states were to adopt by the end of the conference. The official debate about lesbians had quickly plunged to fearmongering depths, with the spectre of lesbianism conflated with pedophilia, western decadence, family breakdown and even bestiality. (1) I had volunteered to speak to the African Caucus, on behalf of the Lesbian Caucus, to urge them to lobby their state representatives to support retention of the references to sexual orientation.

As 1 waited my turn to speak, I listened to others speaking about the gendered effects of entrenched poverty, interminable armed conflicts, structural adjustment programmes, spiralling crime and millions of refugees and displaced people. As I listened, I felt a sense of shame rising from deep within me--a familiar shame of self-loathing and embarrassment related to my sexuality. Did I really think that the persecution of lesbians deserved to be treated as seriously as the problems these women were talking about? Clearly the chairwoman was wondering the same thing as, when my two-minute slot at the end of the agenda finally arrived, she introduced me by reminding everyone that this was a 'democratic' forum and that I should be allowed to speak. My efforts to convey the importance of retaining those few references to 'sexual orientation' were met with what felt like stony silence, and I went away feeling I had failed to convey the pain and inhumanity of women's lack of sexual autonomy and of homophobia. Yet afterwards, in the labyrinthine corridors of the conference venue, I was stopped on three separate occasions by African women, who each thanked me for what I had said and expressed their support for the Lesbian Caucus. That shame had also prevented them from expressing their views more publicly was clear. This experience of being an object of disgust and of needing to hide our sexuality was something that we shared.

Talking about the subject of gender and sexual diversity is not easy for many people. It can invoke not only shame, but also stigma, rejection, self-hatred and homophobic violence, and lead to imprisonment and even state-sanctioned death. As recently as 2013, Russia strengthened its legislation banning the expression of positive opinions, and the provision of positive information, about homosexuality--what it calls the 'propaganda of homosexuality'. Even before the law was toughened, LGBTIQ activist Irina Fedotova had been arrested and found guilty of an offence for displaying posters near a secondary school stating simply '[h]omosexuality is normal' and 'I am proud of my homosexuality', which the United Nations Human Rights Committee found to be a violation of her right to freedom of expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ('ICCPR'). (2)

It is important to acknowledge the bravery of the many people who have taken, and continue to take, extraordinary risks to advocate for full recognition of the humanity of LGBTIQ people. Without them, I think I can safely say, all of the positive developments that I make reference to in this lecture, would not have taken place.

It is also important to acknowledge that we all have a 'sexual orientation'--that heterosexuality is as much a sexual orientation as homosexuality, and that these two categories do not exhaust the possible forms that sexual orientation can take. There are, for example, those who identify as bisexuals, pansexuals, (3) omnisexuals (4) and metrosexuals (5) and I would also include asexuality and celibacy as sexual orientations, though some of my more pedantic colleagues would disagree. …

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